David Van Nunen (President)

D a v i d   v a n   N u n e n   O A M

AWI President 2009 – Present

David van Nunen, Self-Portrait (after a photo of Banjo Paterson) 2004, Synthetic polymer on linen

At the heart of this exhibition is the premise that art transcends geography, ethnicity, language and traditions. Etymologically, the term tradition is derived from the Latin tradere, meaning to transmit. It is my hope that the multiplicity of approaches to the watercolour medium will encourage a re-imaging, and re-interpretation, of national identity within the context of artistic expression through the transmission of new traditions.David van Nunen, Catalogue preface, Tradition and Transformation: Taiwan-Australia Watercolour Exhibition, 2013

Upon the resignation of Brian Stratton, David van Nunen was elected AWI President in 2009, having served as vice president for two years previously.

The youngest of two children, David John Paterson was born in 1952, in Grafton, the picturesque Jacaranda town on the banks of Clarence River in northern New South Wales, to James Paterson and Ina Jean, née Penn, familiarly known as Jean. In 1967, following his mother’s remarriage, David and his sister, Sheryl, took the surname of their stepfather, Wilhelmus van Nunen, a post-war immigrant from Breda in the Netherlands and decorated member of the Dutch Resistance during World War II. His maternal Penn ancestors originally hailed from Essex, England, while his father’s forebears emigrated to Australia in the 1850s from Lanarkshire, Scotland.

On his paternal side, van Nunen is related to Australia’s iconic bush balladeer and author, A.B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson, Banjo’s grandfather and van Nunen’s great great grandfather being brothers. Their mutual ancestor, John Paterson of Lochlyoch is documented as having founded the breed of Clydesdale (the archaic name for Lanarkshire) horses by importing, between 1715 and 1720, a black Flemish stallion with a white face called Robin, the Lochlyoch bloodline of Clydesdales being much prized.1 Another ancestor, Sir William Paterson (1658-1719), was founder of the Bank of England and architect of the disastrous Darien Scheme.

In 1858, at the age of eighteen, van Nunen’s great grandfather, James Paterson, known as Blenty, sailed to Australia from his native Douglas, Lanarkshire, to join his cousins, Andrew Bogle Paterson (Banjo’s father) and his brother, John, then in Queensland. As Banjo relates, ‘Of my father I saw little, for he was mostly away pioneering in Queensland. There he had a skirmish with blacks, during which his cousin, James Paterson [Blenty], had his spectacles knocked off his nose by the tip of a boomerang… and finally he had to get out of Queensland — just another of the many pioneers who unsuccessfully threw dice with fate.’2

Blenty later settled in Lambing Flat, now Young, New South Wales, where he acquired ‘Home Farm’ at McHenry’s Creek in 1877, while Banjo’s father, Andrew, bought Illalong Station, outside historic Binalong in the Yass Valley. Their life on that isolated sheep property was evocatively documented by Banjo’s mother, Rose Paterson, in her Illalong Letters, a collection of correspondence written between 1873 and 1888.3

Although van Nunen was adept at drawing from a young age, his adventure into watercolour painting began when his mother gave him, at the age of six, the gift of a Reeves watercolour box made in England. Forty-six years later, he would present to his mother a two-volume, hand-bound set of his watercolours on the occasion of her seventieth birthday – one painting for each year of her life. That paintbox he received from his mother served to further stimulate his interest in art, particularly the work of Vincent van Gogh. In fact, at the age of 10, he addressed a letter to the Netherlands Embassy in Canberra requesting information about van Gogh and received by return post a copy of a monograph devoted to the artist from the Dutch Ambassador. Many years later, during dinner at his home in 2008, van Nunen would receive from another Dutchman, Leo Jansen, Curator of Paintings at the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Jansen’s book on van Gogh’s letters.

In the mid-1950s, the family moved to Brisbane, Queensland, where his father, James Paterson, was a manager for Castlemaine XXXX Beer at their Milton brewery. Years later, subsequent to his mother’s remarriage, they relocated to Lake Macquarie, outside Newcastle, in the Hunter region of New South Wales, where he attended Belmont High School. It was while a student in high school that van Nunen won his first art prizes, in 1966, 1967 and 1968, at the Newcastle Sun Art Show.

Since childhood, music has been a parallel passion for van Nunen, who studied vocal technique and voice production before performing professionally on stage and television from the age of nine. In 1962, he played the role of Kurt Von Trapp in the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust production of The Sound of Music, with American actress and singer Renee Guerin, who starred in that musical’s original Broadway production, Australian actor Norman Yemm and mezzo-soprano Rosina Raisbeck. Subsequently, he was cast in several Colin Chapman musical productions, including Chu Chin Chow, before winning first prize for a vocal solo in the 1964 City of Sydney Eisteddfod. As lead soprano for the Newcastle Boys’ Choir, he made a recording of Gounod’s Ave Maria and Franz Schubert’s Who is Silvia and appeared for three years on a weekly children’s musical program on NBN3 in Newcastle, performing solo on every show, as well as with the group, Swallow’s Juniors. A highlight was singing a duet with the great Jimmy Little (notably his 1963 hit, ‘Royal Telephone’), whose warmth, kindness and support he fondly remembers. As an adolescent, while performing as lead singer in a band, he was offered a job in radio, which he declined, having made the decision to pursue art rather than music as a profession. Van Nunen subscribes to the 19th-century Romantic notion, expressed by Walter Pater, that art aspires to the condition of music. Music remains a resonance in van Nunen’s art practice, particularly attuning him to the cadence of colour and rhythm of forms.

From the age of fifteen, van Nunen travelled regularly by bus or train from Newcastle to visit the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The most memorable for him was the 1967 exhibition, Two Decades of American Painting, which was significant in its stylistic impact on the evolution of Australian contemporary art and which would be seminal to van Nunen’s own vision as an artist.

In 1971, van Nunen enrolled in the Advanced Diploma course at the National Art School, Newcastle, winning in his first year there the Von Bertouch Gallery Prize and the Modern Junior Section Award at the Mattara Festival Art Exhibition. While an art student, he had a studio adjoined to Newcastle’s legendary Star Hotel, where he worked as a part-time bar manager. Situated in Hunter Street, the Star was a popular, eclectic pub with a seamen’s bar at the front, drag shows in the centre bar and, at the back, live bands with free music every night of the week. Its closure would spark the infamous 1979 riot, one of the worst in Australian history, and inspire the song, Star Hotel, by the band Cold Chisel. It was in his Star Hotel studio that van Nunen prepared his first solo exhibition, The Painted Case, in 1974, at the NASUN Gallery, Newcastle, comprised of serial geometric landscapes painted in encaustic and oil on deconstructed packing cases, followed by The Colour of Twelve (serial geometric abstraction)at Cooks Hill Gallery, Newcastle, and Balmain Gallery, Sydney, in 1976.

Having obtained an Advanced Diploma of Art, van Nunen painted full-time for a year and was awarded first prize in the Art Form ’75 exhibition, adjudicated by renowned abstract artist and AWI member, John Coburn. That same year, his portrait of Australian composer Nigel Butterley was selected as a finalist in the prestigious Archibald Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Subsequently, van Nunen would be an Archibald Prize finalist six times, a Wynne Prize finalist eleven times and once a finalist in the Sulman Prize.

It was on the occasion of the opening of the 1975 Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, that van Nunen initially met Peter Laverty, then Director of that institution. As an artist, art educator and museum director, Laverty always took a genuine interest in young artists, including van Nunen, to whom he gave enthusiastic encouragement and support. Decades later, in his capacity as AWI President, van Nunen was proud to pay tribute to Peter Laverty at his funeral in 2013 as an esteemed AWI member since 1965, Life Member since 1971 and past vice president of the Australian Watercolour Institute.

After completing a Graduate Diploma in Education, van Nunen relocated to Sydney, initially sharing a warehouse for some years at 10 Birchgrove Road, Balmain, opposite the Riverview Hotel, then owned by Olympic swimmer, Dawn Fraser. In 1977, he joined the Robin Gibson Gallery stable of artists, which included Brett Whiteley, Tim Storrier, Lawrence Daws, Elwyn Lynn, Ian Grant and Neil Taylor. Elwyn Lynn, eminent artist and art critic, would become a significant figure in van Nunen’s career both as a mentor and personal friend. The close, enduring relationship forged with ‘Jack’ Lynn and his wife, Lily, remains one of the most enriching and valued of his life.

In 1979, van Nunen travelled to New York on his first trip overseas, staying at the legendary Chelsea Hotel, at 222 West 23rd Street, temporary residence of a galaxy of art and music stars, including Bob Dylan Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Larry Rivers, Claes Oldenburg, Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns and Brett Whitely. While in New York, he visited museums, particularly the Museum of Modern Art and the Frick Collection (to repeatedly view the brilliant chromatics in the portrait, Comtesse d’Haussonville, by Ingres), and met expatriate artists Virginia Cuppaidge, Denise Green, Bill Wright and Hilarie Mais.

The following year, he was awarded a fellowship for a six-month tenure as artist-in-residence at the Power Studio, Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris, under the aegis of the University of Sydney, where he undertook a series of works for an exhibition, drawing inspiration from the bateaux-mouches navigating the river Seine, the flying buttresses flanking Notre Dame Cathedral, the gardens of Versailles and the Bois de Vincennes. With Dr. David Bromfield, curator and academic, he visited Giverny one day in winter, when the site was closed to the public, for a private viewing (by appointment with the museum’s curator) of Claude Monet’s collection of Japanese prints, as well as a tour of his house, studio and garden. In his visits to museums, van Nunen closely studied Brancusi, Matisse and Léger, while furthering his intensive analysis of Cubism, most notably the works of Picasso, who has been the singular most important influence throughout his career.

Upon his return to Sydney, van Nunen’s exhibition, Recent Paintings and Drawings from the Paris Studio 1980-81, was shown at the Robin Gibson Gallery, garnering laudatory reviews. A major work from that series, Just Another Picture Postcard, is in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. While in Paris, van Nunen met his future wife, Linda, American-born journalist, art critic and author, whom he married in 1981.

In 1982, van Nunen won the Sydney Morning Herald Heritage Art Prize, at the time Australia’s most valuable award for landscape painting, which was presented to him by the then Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser. That same year, van Nunen and his wife moved to their current warehouse studio-residence. Over the next decade, van Nunen had seven exhibitions at the Robin Gibson Gallery, a solo survey exhibition at Muswellbrook Regional Gallery, as well as one-man shows in Melbourne, Canberra, Perth and Newcastle. He obtained a Master of Arts degree from the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales in 1988.

While the Australian landscape had always been a central motif in van Nunen’s oeuvre, he began consistently painting en plein air at Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens and along the foreshores of Sydney Harbour from 1983, representing a stylistic evolution in his work from the geometrical abstraction of his earlier serial imagery towards a less formalised mural approach to the picture plane, with the integration of more figurative references. His pictorial documentation of the original site of Curlew Camp on the eastern shore of Little Sirius Cove, Mosman, where some of the most celebrated paintings of Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts and other leading Heidelberg School landscape artists were produced en plein air, led to an invitation to be artist-in-residence at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in connection with their major exhibition, Bohemians in the Bush: The Artists’ Camps of Mosman, in 1991. He also featured in the ABC television documentary, Bohemians in the Bush, in connection with that exhibition. During his three-month tenure as artist-in-residence (only the second artist-in-residence at that institution), his studio was re-created adjacent to the exhibition area, where he worked two days a week and also painted en plein air at Sirius Cove, culminating in a solo exhibition, David van Nunen: Paintings from the Curlew Camp at Sirius Cove, which opened at the Art Gallery of New South Wales on 21 August 1991.

In 1990, van Nunen was invited to participate, with Sandra Leveson (fellow AWI member), in the Artists in the Field camp at Yellow Waters, Kakadu, initiated by Colin Jack-Hinton, Director, Museums and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory, followed by a conjoint exhibition, Artists in Kakadu, at the Museums and Galleries of the Northern Territory in 1991.

Among van Nunen’s forty solo exhibitions were those at the Australian Embassies in Washington, D.C. and Mexico City (1997) and the Australian Embassy, Paris (2001). A major project was van Nunen’s plein air documentation of all the islands of Sydney Harbour for the exhibition, Crossings: The Islands of Sydney Harbour, which was opened by former Prime Minister, the Hon. Paul Keating, at Rex-Livingston Gallery in 2007. On the 70th anniversary of the death of Banjo Paterson, and drawing on their shared family history, van Nunen mounted an exhibition, Banjo Paterson: Chasing His Tale, inspired by the life and legacy of the Australian poet.

A sinophile with a particular interest in Chinese ink painting, van Nunen has made numerous trips to China as an international guest artist and judge at the Lushan International Watercolour Festival, Lushan (2010, 2014, 2016) and in connection with various AWI-China exhibitions. In 2013, at the invitation of Wong Shun Kit, Director, Himalayas Art Museum, Shanghai, van Nunen was artist-in-residence at the Zendai Himalayas Art Museum in Zhujiajiao, where he held a solo exhibition of Chinese ink and watercolour paintings based on his expeditions to Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) and Suzhou, famed for its ancient classical gardens.

In his role as president of the Australian Watercolour Institute, van Nunen has been resolutely committed to the mounting of, and participation in, major international exhibitions with a view to elevating the profile of the AWI, encouraging cross-cultural collaboration, expanding the possibilities of creative interaction and promoting the development of watercolour globally.

In the week following his election as AWI President, on 5 April 2009, he met with John Inglis, President of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour (RSW), in Glasgow, and subsequently with David Paskett, President of the Royal Watercolour Society (RWS), in London, to present a proposal for a joint exhibition with the AWI in Australia. Despite having some members in common, these three prominent watercolour societies had never before exhibited together. His initiative met with their enthusiastic approval and it was agreed that the office bearers of both the RWS and RSW would participate in a conjoint historic exhibition entitled Wattle, Rose and Thistle: The Finest Watercolourists of Australia, England and Scotland,which was shown concurrently at two venues in 2010 – Wollongong Art Gallery and Wagner Gallery, Sydney, where it was opened by broadcaster and writer, John Doyle (also known as Rampagin’ Roy Slaven of the comedy duo, Roy and HG).

In a reciprocal initiative, David Paskett, President of the Royal Watercolour Society, formally extended an invitation to the AWI for its officers to participate in the RWS Autumn Exhibition at the Bankside Gallery, London, and the Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro, in October 2010 to January 2011. This joint RWS and AWI exhibition then toured to the Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh, as part of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour Annual Exhibition 2010.

The following year, the AWI participated in the 2011 Taiwan International Watercolour Exhibition, at the invitation of Professor Chin-Lung Huang, President of the Taiwan International Watercolour Society, which was shown at two museums in America before travelling to Chun-Shan National Art Gallery, Taipei, Taiwan.

In another historic first, following the landmark exhibitions with the Royal Art Society and Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour, a major collaborative exhibition between the AWI and the Taiwan International Watercolor Society, with 114 participating artists, brought together the best of Eastern and Western watercolour painting in 2012. Tradition and Transformation: Taiwan Australian Watercolour Exhibition, conjointly curated by AWI President David van Nunen and TIWS President Chin-Lung Huang, was shown to great acclaim at Taichung Municipal Centre, Taipei, and Mosman Art Gallery, Sydney, where it attracted an unprecedented number of visitors. By showcasing a diversity of techniques in watercolour, Tradition and Transformation: Taiwan-Australia Watercolour Exhibition, and the accompanying book-format catalogue, demonstrated how the tradition of Chinese painting has informed Western contemporary art and, conversely, how Western art has transformed the tradition of Chinese painting.

Further consolidating the AWI’s cultural links with China, where watercolour is a favoured medium within the country’s vibrant contemporary visual arts culture, the collaborative exhibition, Across the Water: China Australia Modern Masters of Watercolour, curated by van Nunen and Xidan Chen, Director, Quanhua Watercolour Art Gallery, Shanghai, and Organiser of the Shanghai Zhujiajiao International Watercolour Biennial, was shown at Quanhua Watercolour Art Gallery, Zhujiajiao, Shenzhen Fine Art Museum, Shenzhen, and Juniper Hall, Sydney, in 2014-2015. The high quality, book format catalogue documenting this exhibition was produced by Xidan Chen in China. In 2017, the collaborative exhibition between the AWI and the Shandong Watercolour Society, China, Australia-Shandong, was curated by AWI President David van Nunen and Tianya Zhou, President of the Shandong Watercolour Society, Curator of the Shenzhen International Watercolour Biennial and Curator of Luohu Cultural Center, Shenzhen, China. Comprising more than 150 works, Australia-Shandong continued our commitment to cross-cultural exchanges to showcase the myriad techniques, styles and subject matter in the development of watercolour painting internationally. Forthcoming exhibitions include a curated joint AWI-Chinese Painting Society exhibition in 2019 to be shown in Beijing, Hubei Province and Sydney; a curated joint AWI-Taiwan Watercolor Society exhibition in 2020 to be shown in Taichung, Taiwan, and Sydney; and a Taiwan-Australia Watercolour Competition to be shown in Taiwan and Australia.

In his term as president, van Nunen has continued to build on the international prestige of the Institute, with AWI participation in the Busan International Watercolour Festival, Busan, Korea (2010, 2012, 2014); Shanghai Zhujiajiao International Watercolour Biennial Exhibition, Shanghai (2010, 2012); Lushan International Watercolour Festival, Lushan (2010, 2012, 2014, 2016); Shenzhen International Watercolour Biennial, shown at Shenzhen Art Museum, Ningbo Art Museum, Hei Longjiang Art Museum, Shanxi Art Museum, Yinchuan Art Museum, Chongqing Art Museum and Hainan Museum (2013); Second Chinese Academy of Art Watercolour Exhibition, China Academy of Art Museum, Huangzhou, China (2011); International Watercolour Biennial, Museo Nacional de Acuarela Alfredo Guati Rojo, Mexico City (2009, 2011, 2013, 2015, 2017); Qingdao International Watercolour Salon, Qingdao China (2014); World Watermedia Exposition, Ratchadamnoen Contemporary Arts Center, Bangkok, Thailand (2014); Thailandscape, Wangna Art Gallery, Bangkok, Thailand and National Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall, Taipei, Taiwan (2014) and Re-Interpretation: International Contemporary Watercolour Exhibition, Taicang Museum, Suzhou Art Museum, Qingdao Sculpture Gallery, Shanghai Textile and Fashion Museum and Quanhua Watercolour Art Gallery, Shanghai (2014).

His work is represented in major public, corporate and private collections in Australia and internationally, including the National Gallery of Australia; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; the Art Gallery of New South Wales; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Parliament House, Canberra; New South Wales State Parliament; the National Library of Australia and numerous regional art galleries. David van Nunen was awarded the Order of Australia Medal in the 2020 Australia Day Honours List for service to the visual arts.


  1. The Clydesdale Stud Book, Clydesdale Horse Society of Great Britain and Ireland, R. Maclehose, 1884, pp. 18-19.
  2. Paterson, A. B. Banjo, ‘Banjo Paterson Tells His Own Story,’ Sydney Morning Herald, 4 February 1939.
  3. Paterson, Rose, Rose Paterson’s Illalong Letters, 1873-1888, edited by Colin Roderick, Kangaroo Press, 2000.

Copyright © Linda van Nunen and David van Nunen

Extract from Brushes with History: Masters of Watercolour by Linda van Nunen and David van Nunen (The Beagle Press, 2015)

Copyright © Australian Watercolour Institute